One of the most powerful words in the English language, this word has been attached to a plethora of conflicting definitions.
Considering that every two minutes another American is sexually assaulted, there should be much thought put into how it is defined, interpreted and handled legislatively.
As a starting point to my research, I looked up “rape” on the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a place where many people look for guidance. The first search result was:
“An Old World herb (Brassica napus) of the mustard family grown as a forage crop and for its seeds which yield rapeseed oil and are a bird food.” Followed by 2. “: to force (someone) to have sex with you by using violence or the threat of violence,” and the archaic definition “to seize and take away by force.”
Alarmed, I searched Wikipedia, which I also consider to be a main feeder of information for people looking to understand a concept. Wikipedia defines rape as:
“A type of sexual assault usually involving sexual intercourse, which is initiated by one or more person against another person without that person’s consent”.
Hold on. I have a huge problem with these definitions. Both websites focus on penetration of a male penis into female vagina. Merriam-Webster does not even acknowledge male-to-female non-forcible rape.
This limits the concept of “rape” as it excludes a variety of other forms of rape: non-forcible (including inability to communicate), object penetration of any sexual orifice, oral, rape of females by females, and notably the rape of males- in any form.
Excluding men from the criteria is dangerous, considering that one in every thirty-three men have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime.
A few years ago, the FBI changed their 80-year-old definition of “rape,” in an attempt to create a more encompassing definition.In December of 2011, with the efforts of the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Advisory Policy Board, the definition was changed to:
“Penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”
The FBI consciously changed the definition to include “gender neutrality, the penetration of any bodily orifice, penetration by any object or body part, and offenses in which physical force is not involved”
Calling these updates “long overdue, Attorney General Eric holder said, “This new, more inclusive definition will provide us with a more accurate understanding of the scope and volume of these crimes.”
So what was the definition before?
The FBI definition that has held authority from 1927 to 2011 was: “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will.”
In the realm of murder there are so many legislative loopholes, accomplices, spectators, premeditation, but in rape there is only “victim” and “rapist.” Why are we, as a society, so thorough in policy-making regarding the loss of human life, but not in the violation of one’s physical and mental well-being?
Any definition of rape has limitations and cannot encompass the multitude of sexual offenses that one could experience as rape.
While discussing this assertion with a fellow feminist and student at UCI, Amber DiFerdinand, we thought of a few situations in which these current definitions of rape do not clearly speak to: having sex because of financial or emotional dependency (especially with children and family members in the equation), domestic rape, and perhaps more complicated to explain: the inability to communicate emotions and consent depending on each circumstance.
There are limits in discourse and there will always be conflicts in defining words especially in the realm of sexual assault which can occur in limitless forms. Attempting to systematically categorize the word rape by putting a definition upon it is a symbol of our society’s struggle to understand rape and the implications of rape.
RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, reports:
“Victims of sexual assault are: 3 times more likely to suffer from depression, 6 times more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, 13 times more likely to abuse alcohol, 26 times more likely to abuse drugs, and 4 times more likely to contemplate suicide.”
With limited or skewed understanding of rape, there cannot be effective legislative punishments, educational reform for preventative measures, and treatment for those who have been effected by rape in one form or another. A sexual encounter that is unwanted, no matter what organs, objects, or individuals involved, should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
Rape should not be limited to a set of circumstances or string of words.